In a Word: The Skillful Right and the Evil Left

Humans’ bias toward the right-handed is embedded in our language.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Not many generations ago, children caught favoring the left hand were often forced — sometimes painfully so — into using their right hand instead. Some psychologists had associated left-handedness with contrariness, perversity, clumsiness, and, farther back in time, even pathological behavior and criminality. The Devil himself was believed to be a southpaw, and during the Inquisition, a woman could be accused of being a witch just for being left-handed.

Our hostility against things on the left goes back to antiquity: Omens that were viewed on the left — say, a flock of birds taking flight — were considered inauspicious or signs of misfortune. In Latin, such bad omens were sinister, meaning “left” or “on the left,” and from this early augural start, the word sinister over time gained the sense of “harmful” and, eventually in English, “evil.”

The opposite of the Latin sinister is dexter “situated on the right.” Because most people did better work with their right hand, dexter also developed the sense of “skillful.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, this “skillfulness” found its way into the English language as dexterity and dexterous, both etymologically referring to being right-handed.

Tacking on the prefix ambi- (“both”) gives us ambidextrous, meaning “having equal facility with the left and right hand” but literally translating to “having two right hands.”

The right side has long been considered the stronger or more important side. According to the Bible, for example, Christ sits at the right hand of God. The word right itself dates back to Old English riht, but it didn’t originally indicate handedness. It meant “straight (both literally and metaphorically), proper, good” — hence righteous.

Because most people were stronger and more agile with one hand, that became the “proper” hand for doing things, and therefore the right hand. That lexical shift from “proper, stronger hand” to “hand on the opposite side from the heart” didn’t occur until the 13th century. The other hand then became the left, which probably comes from an Old English dialect word that means “weak.”

So, according to our language, left-handedness is weak and evil and right-handedness is good and strong. It’s no wonder, then, that for so long southpaws were pressured — or forced — to conform to a right-handed world. It wasn’t until the neurological and anatomical studies of the mid-19th century that the scientific community even gave much consideration to the natural forces that govern handedness. And even then, it took another century before left-handers started gaining wider acceptance in civilization — in part because tools and equipment designed to be used left-handed was a profitable and previously untapped market.

While left-handedness today is no longer linked to moral turpitude or psychological disability (5 of our last 8 presidents were left-handed), its linguistic heritage lives on in our language — though thankfully (for us lefties), it seems to be fading away. Sure, one’s most important confidant might still be called a “right-hand man,” and someone who simply cannot dance still has “two left feet.” But on the other hand (see what I did there?), English speakers are now more likely to receive a “backhanded compliment” than the older “left-handed compliment.” And while in some languages a clumsy person might be accused of “having two left hands,” in English, you’re more likely to “be all thumbs.”

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

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Comments

  1. This certainly is an interesting revelation on left vs. right that has nothing to do with politics (or does it?) Hmmm…

    Anyway, I had no idea to the extent left-handedness was considered to have the truly horrible attributes you describe and go into here, OR all of the positive attributes being right-handed were given.

    My Dad was forced (in school) into being the “correct” right-handed child he was “supposed to be” and it altered his printing and handwriting into LOOKING like it was forced; with a jerky look that was likely the result. He did learn to become right-handed, but for the wrong reasons. He could still write pretty well with his left. My Mom was right-handed, and both watched me from early infancy for signs I was right-handed, confirmed by the pediatrician at three months.

    I was temporarily forced to write/sign things with my left hand after I dislocated my right shoulder in ’08 that I wrote of in Jeff’s recent opiate feature. I managed better than I thought. but was scared my right hand/arm wouldn’t be the same. It was and IS the one with nearly ALL the talent. The left hand is very important, but definitely the helper to the right. They’re equals on the computer however, that’s good; but not on paper. While not beautiful like the right, the left’s more crude signature is still legible! Most people now sadly can only scribble, and they’re right handed. They should be ashamed of themselves Andy, and we both know it!

    Although there are still negatives per the last paragraph here, much progress has been made with prejudices having largely subsided. Rightly or wrongly, it’s still a right-handed person’s world. I admire left-handed people for the extra work and effort required of them every day, in making the needed adjustments right-handed people don’t have to.

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